Amy Tarr: Why did you start cooking? What or who inspired you to become a chef?
Gabriel Bremer: Cooking was something I was always doing. I grew up outside of Cleveland in Lakewood, Ohio. In my family, every Sunday, we’d be baking something together. I started cooking to get money to go to school. I studied classical percussion for 14 years. So I knew I’d end up in the restaurant industry to support a musical career.
AT: Did you attend culinary school?
GB: No, I was lucky enough to work with the right people in the right places. If anything, I had more of a traditional apprenticeship. You just need to work through and learn as you go. I had some key people around me.
AT: Who are your mentors? What are some of the most important things you’ve learned from them?
GB: Fore Street was definitely an environment for whipping me into shape. Sam Hayward’s executive Sous Chef Esau Crosby saw that I was a young person at the time who had potential as a gem in the rough. He taught me many things, way more than just technique. He would chip away at the stone and guide me in the right direction. Along my whole path, it’s been a lot of trial and error and a lot of learning. I’ve done a lot of reading about and researching other people from around the world, focusing on what people are doing in New York, and building friendships there. But the one person I’d give credit for in pushing me to stick with it would be Esau.
AT: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
GB: To focus on the customer. It’s the philosophy that Analia and I had when we opened. We wanted to bring back the concept of dining and giving the full attention to the customer, no matter if it’s someone who lives in the neighborhood coming in for salad and a glass of wine or someone coming in for an extravagant tasting with wine parings. Our whole goal is to push the borders a little, be creative and have fun, but still have familiar, comforting flavors. We don’t want to have dishes that people come in and scratch their heads about. We want to make them think about the combination of flavors, a texture that might be unique, but use flavors that they understand.
AT: Do you have challenges when it comes to menu writing?
GB: I leave the menu simply worded so that things are familiar. I leave out all the funky stuff that you don’t know about until you get it. It goes back to our philosophy of focusing on the customer. I don’t want people sitting there feeling uncomfortable with terms that they don’t understand. The last thing I want is someone on their first date, feeling silly because they don’t understand the menu. We’re keeping a balance of playing and being creative, but also being recognizable.
AT: Are there any secret ingredients that you especially like?
GB: To be honest, everything! I don’t know if I can say there’s a certain few. Everything for me is very seasonally and quality-based. And then after that it’s based on what I can get.
AT: What flavor combinations do you favor?
GB: I’m always throwing things together and playing, pulling from a lot of pastry techniques and flavors. I generally use flavors that would be associated more with pastry than savory dishes. Like, for example, here is a soup that I’m putting on the menu now – a macomber turnip soup with Ballotine of smoked quail, rosemary oil, and mocha foam.
AT: What is your most indispensable kitchen tool?
GB: Right now the centerpiece of equipment in my kitchen is my Vitaprep – I use it for several purees on the menu. I also use it for the soups and some of the emulsions, as well as some herb syrups for pastry. It’s the most fought-over piece of equipment during the prep day. It makes everything absolutely creamy and smooth.
AT: Is there a culinary technique that you have either created or use in an unusual way?
GB: I’m on this paper kick right now. I take my pastry experience and combine it with the savory. Think of it as a tuile batter. I come up with purees that have that consistency. Typically I’ve done it with things that have some body – it can’t be too loose. I’ve done it with beets, carrots, and shiitake mushrooms and then you balance out the natural sweetness of the ingredients by adding the simple syrup. I spread it out on Silpat, bake it at a really low temperature and then break it apart by hand - or slice it if I want them a little cleaner. We’ve been able to play around and do them as papers by rolling them into coronets.
AT: What is your favorite question to ask during an interview for a potential new line cook?
GB: What got you into cooking? What was your best meal/dining experience that you have had to memory? Typically from that I can get a lot. I can see their passions, see what direction they are heading in, and see what their influences are. You can tell how real and honest people are because they can make their favorite dining experience sound like your own restaurant. I’d pick someone quicker who talked about some tiny burrito place in California versus someone describing something very similar to my restaurant.
AT: What tips would you offer young chefs just getting started?
GB: Before going to school, try to get a job. Spend some time in a kitchen.
AT: What are your favorite cookbooks?
GB: Michel Bras’ “Essential Cuisine” is one I definitely take a lot of influence from. I just got this new book on new cuisine from Catalina that highlights a whole bunch of restaurants. I’m going through, searching out some of the harder to find books form Spain and France. The El Bulli book is our new staple. I just like seeing how we can take those ideas and work them into things here. I actually did for New Year’s Eve. My amuse was a play off his consommé noodles. I did a linguine and clam sauce consisting of the flavors you’d think of for that. I made it into a lemon sponge and caviar consommé noodles. It was very El Bulli, but with Italian and American flavors.
AT: What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry now?
GB: One thing I’m seeing is that the modern moment of cooking right now is becoming a bad game of telephone. Some people out there are coming up with dishes that seem to me that they’re cooking for themselves or to impress their friends, not just for the people that come in to dine in their restaurants. Being so esoteric in concept and flavor is great to do once, but you’re never going to crave it. People need to take two steps back, instead of pushing to be so innovative and interpreting Spain. It’s losing touch with how it started. A lot of what people are doing over there are modern interpretations of regional flavors that people already know.
AT: So why are you different?
GB: We want to try these techniques and learn them but combine them into a sort of modern comfort food. Everyone’s going to love comfort food- it’s simple, hearty, and has good flavors. That’s never going out of style. If you follow trends, next week the trend could be over. Keep comfortable, understandable flavors and play with them a little. We’re lucky with our location; we get a lot of international clientele. Once a week, I hear, “I just got back from the French Laundry or Arpege, Per Se, Spain, etc. This is both nerve-wracking and wonderful because it gives us room to play. As long as you’re true to what you are doing, you’ll be fine. Because Cambridge is very well-traveled and educated you can’t cheat on things, or on the technique. They’ll catch you on it. I joked that I wasn’t going to foams until it wasn’t poplar anymore. I just finally put them on the menu. Foam is such a loose terminology, and you have room within that lightness to play with textures. Within the word foam there’s at least four different textures. And you can then go and freeze it!
AT: Where do you see yourself in 5-10 years?
GB: Wherever it takes me, I’m sure it’ll be fun! At least in the next five years I’ll be right where I am now and just see how we keep evolving. Just these first two years have been very interesting watching the restaurant evolve –the cuisine and the clientele have evolved together. It’s a very different restaurant today than it was two years ago. I want to see where we go and where we push ourselves to. We’re constantly back there striving to get closer to the idea of perfection in what we do and looking for new techniques to learn. Nothing stays too static here.
AT: Do you see yourself owning multiple restaurants?
GB: I don’t envision growing into a bigger space or having multiple restaurants. If anything, it would be wonderful if we had a waiting area. But the number of seats we have is good for the style of food, but we should have twice as many people cooking the food for the style we have. We have about 45 seats. When I’m fully staffed I have 4 people cooking. If we do the level of food you tasted and we have 75 people on a Saturday night, it’s intense. If anything, we’d love to open a little wine bar across the street.
AT: Like Casa Mono and Bar Jamon in New York?
GB: Exactly, maybe that style of a tiny tapas menu, just so we can make ourselves a waiting area. As far as multiple operations go, neither of us have any interest in that. We’re just trying to focus on doing one thing really well.
AT: What range do you cook on?
GB: Jade. Because I can’t afford the one from France that I want. I used them before and they are just awesome. My stove is a tank and is definitely great for what I found. When we opened we had a miniscule budget. In terms of the stoves I’ve worked on and the price point, they are definitely the better deal.
AT: Tell me about the restaurant you owned in Maine before Salts – it was called Gabriel’s?
GB: It was a partnership – I was young and naïve. I worked with my partner before at another restaurant- he was the front of house manager. I thought it would be a good mix. But it just turned out to be oil and water. I was there for just under 2 years. It was going well but our directions were getting further and further apart.
AT: What lessons from that experience have you applied to Salts?
GB: Expect the unexpected. Analia and I learned how to deal with that in a calm demeanor. That was the easiest way to describe it. I have a reviewer who’s become good friends with me. He describes the kitchen as a surgery room – there’s no talking. It’s just very focused.